South Sudan has one of the most armed populations of any state in the world. The proliferation of arms has directly contributed to the violence and instability that have plagued the country for years. Despite overwhelming evidence of the tremendous harm they cause to civilians and public infrastructure, weapon acquisitions and transfers continue unabated in South Sudan.
Where do these weapons come from? With little official data on transfers and acquisition, it has been particularly difficult to track the movement of arms. Increasingly, however, more detailed accounts are beginning to emerge that enable us to trace the complex web of arms trading in South Sudan.
The proliferation of weapons in South Sudan is intricately linked to its violent history, which continues to this day.
Firearms are believed to have first arrived in Sudan in the early 1800s with the invading forces of the Ottoman Empire. More arms were brought during the 19th century by the British-led Anglo-Egyptian forces. It wasn’t until the 1950s, however, that civilian gun ownership began to proliferate, following the 1955 mutiny and the birth of the Southern Sudanese secessionist movement.
The build-up of arms, and the climate of insecurity that came with the secessionist rebellion, were further exacerbated by the Cold War. Both the Sudanese Government and the Southern rebel groups received weapons and ammunition from foreign powers using the country as a proxy in this larger conflict. These weapons frequently changed hands and were often appropriated by civilians.
EAST AFRICAN NEIGHBORS
A part of the problem can be placed at the feet of foreign liberation movements and the overflow of domestic conflicts from neighboring countries into South Sudan. Armed groups from outside South Sudan would cross the state’s porous borders and use South Sudanese soil to regroup and shelter, bringing their conflicts and weapons with them. This ‘spill-over effect’ is well illustrated by the Ugandan Lord’s Resistance Army (LRA), which used Southern Sudan as their operational base to fight the Government of Uganda, leaving behind a large number of weapons which fell into civilian hands.
Many guns found their way to Southern Sudan as a result of geopolitical strategies. It is not uncommon for states to try and weaken other states by destabilizing them from the inside, often by arming or funding homegrown rebel groups. Libyan leader, Colonel Gaddafi, allegedly armed the Sudanese People’s Liberation Army (SPLA) and other opposition groups while seeking to oust the then Sudanese President, Gaader Nimeiry. Similarly, the Sudanese Government sponsored militant groups in neighboring countries. However, these interventions sometimes had unintended and ironic consequences. When some of the rebel groups in neighboring countries were defeated by their own governments, it was the Southern Sudanese secessionist militias who eventually acquired these (north) Sudanese arms.
With almost 40 years of internal conflict, South Sudan has also been home to a range of non-state actors actively seeking small arms and light weapons to fight for their causes. A number of countries, primarily within the Horn of Africa, have been eager to arm them. Over the past decades, Ethiopia and Uganda provided material support to the SPLA; Eritrea supported rebel coalition the Eastern Front in the Republic of Sudan; and Chad and Libya armed a number of Darfur (Western Sudan) rebel groups. Many of these weapons ended up in the hands of rebel groups in South Sudan and Darfur. In the past, the Sudanese government and Sudanese Armed Forces have also armed and supported forces fighting the SPLA and the South Sudanese government, providing guns and munitions.
Finally, increased civilian armament has been the result of the general insecurity that has plagued South Sudan since the 1950s. Many South Sudanese are nomads and they have often travelled through porous borders to neighboring Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda to obtain arms and ammunition for cattle raiding and self-defense. While there have been some initiatives targeted at disarming the population, they have largely failed. Even if some communities surrendered arms temporarily, they often found themselves attacked by other communities who were still armed. Thus, there have been few incentives for communities to disarm but plenty to rearm (self-defense, cattle-raiding, and revenge attacks among others). In addition to neighboring countries, ammunition and guns were also offered to civilians by corrupt military personnel through the black market for personal financial benefit or to buy allegiance.
Initiatives targeted at disarming the population in South Sudan have largely failed
The lack of robust state infrastructure and no international framework to control the spread of arms has meant that many weapons have stayed in circulation. They are subsequently used again and again long after each conflict has technically ended, or at least died down. Old guns, new wars.
At independence in 2011, it is believed that 3.2 million weapons were circulating in South Sudan, two-thirds of which were thought to be in the hands of civilians. The widespread availability of weapons among the civilian population largely explains the general insecurity across South Sudan. However the speed and magnitude of the violence following the outbreak of the 2013 civil war between the government and the rebels is also partly owed to the fact that the country has practically become a weapon dump for the international arms trade and illicit transfers.
In 2015, the UN Panel of Experts on the Sudan documented the presence of large amounts of sophisticated weaponry on both sides, many of them originating from abroad and which continue to fuel the conflict today:
- Ukraine: During the Comprehensive Peace Agreement (CPA) interim period (2005–2011, the pre-independence transition period), Ukraine became the most prolific exporter of small arms, light weapons, tanks and other large conventional weapons to South Sudan. Ukrainian heavy machine guns and grenade launchers were found in 2014, even after the start of the civil war (2013). These weapons, authorized by Ukrainian state arms exporter, Ukrspetsexport, reached South Sudan through Kenya and Uganda.
- China: China is one of the biggest buyers of South Sudanese oil. It is also one of the biggest exporters of arms to Sub-Saharan Africa and the third largest arms exporter in the world, behind the US and Russia. Due to its discount prices and its pledge of full cooperation with South Sudan, China’s arms exports have increased significantly. The UN report notes that the South Sudanese government purchased USD 20 million in weapons from the Chinese state-owned weapons manufacturer, China North Industries Corp. (Norinco), in 2014. Many of these weapons went on to be used by the rebels through re-selling, capture, or re-distribution. While China stopped selling arms following its last shipment in July 2014, its weapons still play a prominent role in South Sudan’s conflict.
- Russia: As recently as 2012, Russia sided with China in resisting Western efforts to sanction the Sudans (North and South) over the escalating conflict between the two countries. Like China, Russia is interested in lucrative deals with the energy-rich states. As a result, Russia explicitly expressed its interest in enhancing military trade relations with South Sudan. In October 2011, a delegation from the Russian Federal State Unitary Enterprise, Rosoboronexport, met with the President Salva Kiir to discuss military cooperation. The Deputy Director-General of Rosoboronexport, Alexander Micheev, then delivered a televised statement on South Sudan TV, stating that Russia was prepared to increase support for building South Sudan’s defense capacity. Since then, Russia has become a significant arms supplier to South Sudan.
- Sudan & Iran: Some of the weapons on the rebel side, opposing South Sudanese President Salva Kiir, have been traced back to Sudan, with markings indicating that they were manufactured in Sudan as recently as 2014, a year after the civil war in South Sudan broke out. According to the Small Arms Survey, close military ties between Iran and Sudan also explains why many weapons of Iranian origin were found in South Sudan. The tight relationship between Khartoum and Tehran has resulted in Iran becoming the second biggest arms exporter to Sudan. These weapons have been reaching South Sudan through its northern border with the Republic of Sudan’s. Iranian weapons were first discovered in 2011 and 2012 in Jonglei and Unity States within David Yau Yau’s rebel group and anti-government SPLA, suggesting that the Iranian arms were part of Khartoum’s efforts to either derail or handicap the ongoing peace processes. However, while Sudanese and Iranian ammunition did reach South Sudan, there is no definite evidence that the countries themselves were implicated in direct arms sales since illicit arms trade is widespread in the region.
- Canada: Evidence shows that between 2012 and 2014, the SPLA procured 20 ‘Cougar’ and 30 ‘Typhoon’ type Armed Personnel Carriers (APCs)manufactured in the United Arab Emirates production facilities of the Canadian-owned manufacturer, Streit Group. Both the Cougar and Typhoon APCs were subsequently observed in different locations within South Sudan between May and December 2014, including in areas of Unity State where the conflict has been intense.
- Former Soviet Bloc countries: Weapons manufactured in Eastern European countries, such as Bulgaria, the former Czechoslovakia, and the former Soviet Union, are also very common among armed groups throughout South Sudan.
- South Africa: South African armored vehicles were sold to South Sudan in 2012 and 2013.
- Israel: According to the UN Report and based on photographic evidence of automatic rifles made by Israel Military Industries (IMI), Israeli weapons are being used by South Sudan’s army and police and are fuelling the war. Despite the evidence, Israel denies any official arms trade.
- Kenya, Ethiopia and Uganda (transit countries): Several regional countries have often been used as routes for arms transfers. Evidence shows that Kenya colluded with Ukraine to keep its arms transfers covert. In addition to Kenya, other countries have played important active or supporting roles in bringing arms into South Sudan. For example, Ethiopia has been a significant covert source of weapons for the SPLA. In 2008, Ethiopia reportedly supplied four shipments of military equipment within a six-month period. Uganda has also served as an overland transit point for arms deliveries.
With an abundance of weapons for both civilians and soldiers, and little oversight or control over them, arms now flow unchecked around South Sudan and kill thousands of civilians every year. This steady supply and recirculation of small arms and light weapons is fueling the conflict further, threatening to spread and prolong it indefinitely.